The Daily Stream: Stand By Me Remains The Gold Standard Of Coming-Of-Age Movies

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Stand By Me" (1986)

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: "Stand By Me" is a miracle of a movie. It manages to be one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever made, as well as the gold standard that all coming-of-age movies have been chasing since 1986. It's emotional, funny, tense, and an all-around banger that will hold up for generations to come.

Why it's essential viewing

For most of my childhood I was raised by a single mother. Since it was the 1980s, that meant mom had to work a lot to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, which could explain my early fascination with storytelling. Movies, in particular, were what I gravitated to and thankfully my very left-leaning mom took a hands-off approach to what I could watch. R-rated movies were fair game, with a few exceptions.

That being said, I remember when we sat down to watch "Stand By Me" she was nervous right off the bat because in the first five minutes you have four tween boys sitting in their treehouse, playing cards, smoking, and cursing up a storm.

I have a very distinct memory of my usually very permissive mom turning to me and saying she wasn't sure I should be watching this. Naturally, I protested, and she didn't need much convincing, even though I couldn't have been older than eight or so at the time. I mean, by this point I had seen "Jaws" and "Aliens" a few dozen times apiece, so what were a few bad words here and there, right?

So, we watched the movie and then I obsessively rewatched it over and over again throughout my entire childhood, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to talk about it today.

Authenticity is this movie's secret sauce

"Stand By Me" connects to kids precisely because it treats its four leads as adults. Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell) are very real kids. Yes, that means they're immature and rash and full of energy and everything else real kids are like, but they also carry around real world problems.

Each one, in his own way, has been let down by the adults in their lives. Gordie's parents are mourning the loss of his older brother and can't get their s*** together to be strong for their surviving son. Chris's whole family is a mess and he's kind of left to figure out a righteous path on his own, all while living in the shadow of his tainted family name. Teddy's father is physically and emotionally abusive, and Vern ... well, we don't know much about Vern's parents, but his brother, who is part of Ace Merrill's hoodlum outfit, is a bad egg. Vern is probably the purest of the four of them, but even so he rings as true.

Watching this movie as a kid you recognize these characters. Everybody knew a Vern at school, and if you're thinking back to your school days and saying "No, I didn't," then bad news, bud: You were someone else's Vern.

Stand By Me is one of the most faithful Stephen King adaptations

I saw myself in Gordie; even if my physique was more on the Vern side of things, I could relate to the kid with ambitions to write and was largely left to fend for himself. My mom was way better than Gordie's folks, by a long way, but most '80s latchkey kids know what I'm talking about. These were the days before the internet and cell phones. We had basic cable (if we could afford it), a VCR, books, and our imaginations. That was it. Maybe I wasn't the invisible boy that Gordie was to his folks, but there was a good chunk there where if I wasn't palling around with my neighborhood friends I'd just be sitting at home by myself.

The fact that Rob Reiner and screenwriters Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans captured childhood so authentically is where the magic sauce of this movie lies. Granted, they had a great blueprint to go off of; Stephen King's novella, "The Body," is largely what you see in "Stand By Me." In fact, there are whole scenes where the dialogue is transposed line by line from book to screenplay.

King started those characters out as fully fleshed out human beings, but it was Reiner's direction and the talented young cast that really cement this movie as being an all-timer and the very definition of a great coming-of-age movie.

Let's talk about the term 'coming-of-age' a little bit, shall we?

Thanks in large part to "Stand By Me," the coming-of-age story is still one of my favorite flavors of movie, but I feel like people misapply that label to movies that aren't actually coming-of-age movies.

Granted, this could just be my definition at work (and society as a whole never voted for my take to be correct), but for me a coming-of-age movie has to focus on characters bridging the gap between childhood and teen years. It's a fascinating and scary time in every single person's life. Bodies are changing, hormones are pumping, the greater world's expectations of you are shifting. That to me is the core of a coming-of-age story, not a "high school seniors going on an adventure" kinda thing that gets slapped with coming-of-age labels all the time. That's a teen movie, my friend.

"Stand By Me" is the perfect coming-of-age story because the four leads start off as kids. They go on a journey thinking like kids (they don't anticipate needing food, for instance, yet Vern brings a comb) and the journey changes them. What they wanted at the outset — to go see a dead body and become local heroes for "discovering" it — isn't what they want at the end of it. The movie and King's original story are all about the transition between child and adult.

Getting angry over labels

This journey marks the end of something. This is the last summer these kids have before everything changes, not only within their friend circle, but their world on the whole. Consider the last line of the movie. Nobody has friends like they did when they were twelve, and that's some hard truth. Even if you're still besties with your childhood friends, those relationships change because we ourselves change.

Puberty, of course, but there's also a shift in maturity and that aforementioned expectation put upon us by our friends, family and even strangers. It all changes in that murky, awkward zone between 12 and 14. Your friendships from that time either evolve together through those tumultuous tween years or break apart, like what happened to the four kids at the center of this story.

That's coming-of-age, for me anyway. We're talking "Stand By Me," "My Girl," "Bridge to Terabithia," "My Life As A Dog," and, hell, even "Almost Famous" qualifies. But when people start throwing around "Heathers" and "10 Things I Hate About You" as coming-of-age movies, that's when I start seeing red.

It's a weird thing to get pissed off about, I know! But I am a movie geek and we get weird about labels. Someday I'll address why I feel it's problematic to label something like "Silence of the Lambs" as a thriller instead of a horror movie (which it absolutely is), but there's only room on this particular soap box for coming-of-age rantings, I'm afraid.

Somewhere on the journey to find Ray Brower's body, the four kids lose their childhoods. The beauty is that it's not one single moment that does it, rather a cumulative effect as the friends bond in a deeper way than they ever have, especially Chris and Gordie, and face threats both within themselves and outside themselves. When they return to Castle Rock they bring the weight of their journey with them. There's melancholy in the air, a sense of maturity that wasn't there at the outset.

To me, that's why "Stand By Me" is the gold standard of coming-of-age movies: those final moments as the friends who shared something amazing together peel off one by one. The fact that it's all told by a narrator looking back with nostalgia on that time is icing on the cake.

The older you get, the harder this movie hits

As a kid, I related to the boys on the adventure. As an adult, I see the wistfulness and sadness in Richard Dreyfuss's eyes as he's looking back over his childhood and I relate to that more.

"Stand By Me" is a miracle of a movie, filled with some of the best child acting that's ever been captured on film, and has Rob Reiner at the height of his powers steering the ship. It should be noted that Reiner straight up defined multiple subgenres in this time period. "Stand By Me" is the ultimate coming-of-age movie, "This Is Spinal Tap" is the quintessential mockumentary, and "When Harry Met Sally" is the top of the rom-com mountain. He had an amazing run during this period, and I didn't even mention "Misery" or "The Princess Bride," which are masterpieces as well.

Anyway, if it's been a minute I highly recommend pulling up "Stand By Me" on Netflix. The older you get, the harder it hits, and I love that about this movie.